Into the Earth: My Journey to Full Cave Diver
By: Wes Kilgore
Perhaps you are cave-curious, looking for the next adventure, or wanting to try something new to broaden your tech diving skills. Whatever your reason may be for deciding to swim into a hole in the earth, you should have a reasonable expectation of what you are getting into. I know I am writing this article somewhat in jest, but in all seriousness, deciding to pursue overhead environment diving should include adequate forethought and research. In this article, I’ll share why I decided to become a cave diver and what my journey was like along the way to reaching this goal.
My father was a recreational dive instructor during the 80’s and early 90’s, and toward the end of his instructing career, I started my own dive training. I grew up with my father reiterating to me that the one type of diving he would never do was cave diving. I was convinced after listening to my father that cave divers had already chosen how they would die and it was just a matter of which dive would it be. However, this form of thinking is absolutely not reality. The truth is, with proper training and obeying the five main rules of diving in an overhead environment, you are limiting the majority of your danger margins in a cave dive.
So, why did I decide to get into overhead environment diving? It wasn’t a simple act of rebellion. You may notice that I keep referring to cave diving as overhead environment diving; this is a clue. The truth is, I am a wreck diver. I love wrecks more than any other type of diving. The history, the sea life, even the mysteries surrounding some wrecks are all so intriguing to me, and I know many others share this perspective. I had already taken a wreck course, earned my limited penetration certification, and even became an instructor for wreck diving. I knew though that I wanted to be able to explore even deeper into those wrecks. I wanted to see as much as I could and I didn’t want my skill levels to be the limiting factors on those wrecks.
Finding advanced wreck instructors is not that easy, though. Sure, there are several out there now and there are some really great ones even. However, I had a buddy who was a cave diver at the time that told me that a lot of the skill sets were very similar between cave diving and advanced wreck diving. I researched this and found it was a somewhat true statement. However, I don’t want you to think for a minute that cave training is a reasonable substitution for advanced wreck training. I just want to give you the reason that I decided to venture into a flooded hole in the ground.
About a year and a half ago, an opportunity arose through the dive shop I was working with to take a combined Cavern and Intro to Cave course. I had been saying that I would do it if the opportunity ever truly presented itself for a couple of years by then. So, now it was time to put up or shut up.
My motivation was not to become a cave diver, but to expand my skills. So, I signed up and started my journey.
There were still numerous Covid-19 restrictions around the country, but I was able to jump right into the online academics. I was introduced to a broad spectrum of material, including different types of caves and systems, identification of various formations and characteristics in caves, types of gear and configurations, the fundamentals of overhead environment diving, and emergency procedures. Once everyone in the course had completed at least a certain amount of the eLearning, we started having academic sessions with our instructor to review the material. By the time I had finished the academic work, I was starting to get excited about actually getting in the water, and most of my initial trepidation about cave diving was gone. Just remember, we are normally more scared of the things we know nothing about.
The more I learned about diving in caves, the more I realized that what I thought I knew simply was not true.
In early October of 2020, I traveled down to North Florida to begin my in-water training. If you think that cave training is going to be conducted in resort environments and that your training will be a boutique experience where your tanks are filled and brought to the site for you by a divemaster who will be waiting expectantly for a good tip and the end of your trip, think again. Let me paint a better picture for you. We met the afternoon before we were supposed to begin our dives. We checked in with our instructor at a double wide trailer in “downtown” Luraville, FL. If you need a further picture painted for you, Luraville’s height of commerce is the Luraville General Store at the main intersection of town next to the one flashing red light. I’m not knocking the general store, either. As a matter of fact, it is a rite of passage for any North Florida cave diver to stop in for lunch while diving the nearby springs at Wes Skiles State Park.
After gear checks, we met our instructor and began land drills. We thoroughly reviewed the types and uses of reels, how to conduct START drills, kicking techniques to avoid silting, and reviewing emergency procedures with us.
Finally, it was time for our first dive. Since we had never been diving together before, our first dive was a calibration dive, assessing our buoyancy, trim, and general way of moving around underwater. We were then led into the cavern at Orange Grove Sink. One of the first things I noticed was that it looked very different from what I was used to and was expecting. Most of the cave photos I had seen were well staged with ample artificial light to really show off the features of the inside of a cave. Here I was inside of a cavern where my primary light source was the sunlight from the mouth of the cave and I still couldn’t see as much as what you could see in those photos. My vision was very focused on the bright spot of my flashlight.
My biggest admission was that I missed most of the beauty surrounding me, because my focus was on the skills I was performing, which was probably a good thing! I spent the next five days trying to progressively get better at skills in an overhead environment. I remember the first time I saw the Grim Reaper sign that adorns the entrances of the majority of caves in North Florida. I was excited but also nervous. I was really starting to realize that I was going to need to be in control of myself since there was no “escape” to the surface anymore. But as I entered further into the cave, I found that every turn in the tunnels, every fly over of a crack or fissure kept doing one thing. Any cave diver will probably know what I am about to say next. But the cave started to beckon me in.
I wanted to see what was around the next bend. I wanted to see more, experience more. I was hooked!
Once I was done with my intro course, my buddies that I had just completed the course with stayed an extra day so we could dive on our own. We checked out the same systems again, but without the performance pressure of being in a class. That’s when I started to see the beauty of what surrounded me and the geological splendor of the solution caves. I said earlier that I love history and now every foot I went deeper, I was looking further back in time. The history of our earth and its formation was never closer to me.
I found myself going back as frequently as I could, which was still not a lot, but I was able to get in another 15 cave dives over the next year. In April of 2021, I found myself making a full career change which moved me down to Florida and in the company other divers. I started going to cave country as much as I could get away with (my wife still wanted me at home for some reason). But I was getting in more dives wherever and whenever I could. However, I was still reluctant to take the next step because I felt like I wasn’t perfect. This is where the flaw in my thinking was. Of course I wasn’t perfect; no one is. But wouldn’t I benefit from getting further training to expand on my skill sets? The answer is yes. The full cave courses focus is less about theory development and new skill introduction and more about applying the practical skill set you begin to develop in the intro course into actually doing cave dives.
I signed up for the full cave course, refreshed my academic knowledge, and I went to cave country. My full cave course was quite a bit more humbling than my cavern and intro course. One, I put on a little weight when I changed jobs due to the different type of work environment. Two, I didn’t prepare as much as I should have for the trip. Every dive it seemed like something went wrong on me. The truth was, I was in my own head. I wasn’t convinced I should be doing the full cave course yet. But I pressed on. I learned that “complex” navigation is not truly as “complex” as I was making it out to be in my head. I was just having to make decisions about which way to go and how to mark the decision point so I could find my way back.
There were times where I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew. However, if you think that there is any cave diver that has been in a cave and never done some real introspection, then you haven’t joined this club yet. I finally completed my last dive and I was exhausted. But, I was a full cave diver! I was proud of that too. I immediately signed up for the National Speleological Society – Cave Diving Section membership. I earned it, right? I still haven’t gotten a tattoo of a direction arrow marker or ordered a vanity plate for my car yet, (if this is striking a nerve with some readers, you know who you are) but I have more respect for diving than I have ever had.
With that in mind, what is the true number one rule of diving? Enjoy it.
I will be back in the caves soon and I will continue my training. Being a full cave diver is just the beginning of cave diving really. Never make your first dive out of training a pinnacle dive. Work your way further progressively. Gain experience over time, and enjoy the sites. They are amazing when you really take the opportunity to notice.